The subject of food and diet can be a confusing and sometimes frustrating topic. There are many conflicting viewpoints and insufficient research to prove certain theories about what we should eat and what to avoid. That being said, When it comes to acne and other inflammatory skin conditions, there is definitely evidence that certain dietary choices and habits can have an effect—for better or worse—on our skin. Given what we've seen in clinical research and from assessing thousands of acne patients, here are our dermatologist recommendations and insights for an acne-friendly diet.
Which foods should you avoid when you have acne?
While we typically don't recommend cutting out entire food groups (or demonizing any particular food), research shows that certain dietary choices can trigger or exacerbate acne breakouts. One of the worst dietary skin offenders? Foods that spike blood glucose and insulin levels (i.e., sugar and foods that turn into sugar). When we consume what are known as "high glycemic" foods, our blood sugar level spikes, this spike triggers an increase in the growth hormones (IFG - insulin-like growth factor), leading to enlargement of the sebaceous glands, more sebum production, and ultimately, more acne breakouts. Therefore, foods with this effect should be monitored, limited, or removed from the diet in people with acne-prone skin.
1. Dairy products
Milk, cheese, and other dairy products can raise insulin levels, which leads to the overproduction of hormones called androgens that play a role in acne. Removing dairy from your diet may reduce the number of new lesions that develop and lessen acne symptoms. Be particularly careful with whey protein, ice cream, and pizza — these contain many dairies!
Dairy products have been shown in multiple studies to increase levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which, as explained above, can trigger or worsen acne breakouts. One of the most triggering forms of dairy is cow's milk, especially "low fat" milk, which contains many progesterone-like hormones and has higher sugar content. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in March 2015 found that participants with acne consumed significantly more low fat/skim milk than those who didn't.
2. Avoid food with a high glycemic index (High GI food)
Food with a glycemic index of 70-100 is regarded as high glycemic food, 56-69 is considered as medium GI food, and < 55 GI food is viewed as low glycemic food. In general: If you are addicted to Italian food, cook your pasta for less time. Cooking can increase the glycemic index/load (bad). So "al dente" pasta is a better choice than soft. Another tip: combine foods with protein (e.g., beans and nuts) or fat. This will slow digestion and allow for the slower conversion of carbohydrates to blood sugar, which is a good thing to control acne.
Which high glycemic foods can cause acne breakouts?
Most processed foods: boxed cereal, crackers and rice cakes, instant oats, sweetened baked goods and candies, white bread, white rice, and white potatoes. When combined with moderate exercise, reducing your sugar intake can help regular insulin levels and mitigate acne symptoms. Sugary foods include any food with added sugars and syrups, like sodas, cereal, candy, and cake.
Foods with a high glycemic load (not exhaustive!)
- Bread products: white bread, bagels, and muffins, cakes
- Sweet breakfast cereals: corn flakes, rice crispies (even granola!)
- Instant cereals: Sweetened oatmeal packs, grits
- Sweet fruits: melons, pineapples, apricots (especially dried fruit!)
- Some vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes
- White grains: white rice, pasta
- Processed snacks: pretzels, rice cakes, popcorn
- Desert: candy, ice cream, milk chocolate, sweetened yogurt
- Dairy: milk, cheese, certain yogurts
Which low glycemic foods can help with your acne?
Low glycemic foods that can reduce your acne: whole grains bread (GI of 46 (low), chickpeas: 33 (low), lentils: 29 (low), non-starchy vegetables, sweet potatoes have a GI of 54 (low), apples or pears: 36 (low), peaches: 28 (low), grapefruit: 25 (low).
Avoid foods that contain brewer’s yeast.
Brewer's yeast is an ingredient used in most bakery products (like bread, pizza dough, and cake) to help the food "rise." Avoiding products with brewer's yeast can help promote the healing of skin lesions. You might find brewer’s yeast in beer, vinegar, black tea, soy sauce, bread (white and whole grain), mushrooms, and bagels, too.
What should you eat if you have this severe form of acne?
Your skin loves vegetables and fresh fruit, unsweetened cereals that don’t contain yeast (from rice or corn), white meat (chicken or fish), eggs, and green tea. That's a shortlist, but it's a good place to start!
Other foods that can trigger acne:
- Oil: Oil in the diet has not been shown to cause acne. Having said that, the debris of greasy food around the mouth can cause more acne breakouts in this area by clogging the pores.
- Whey Protein: Whey protein consumption has been associated with an increase in acne breakouts, especially in teenage boys. A better alternative to regular whey protein is a vegan, plant-based protein powder (or real protein!)
Food that can help with your acne?
Anti-inflammatory foods with a low-glycemic load:
- Fish: mackerel, salmon, and sardines (high in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids)
- Leafy greens: spinach and kale
- Grass-fed animal products: beef, turkey, chicken, eggs
- Certain nuts: walnuts and almonds)
- Certain seeds: Flaxseeds, hemp seeds
- Complex carbs: Wild rice, quinoa
Vitamins supplements that are good for your acne
While a good, balanced, low GI diet is the best place to start, certain supplements can help, especially Vitamin B5, Vitamin A, and Zinc.
- Vitamin B5 (aka pantothenic acid) is one vitamin that you do not want to be deficient in! If you are, it can cause overactive sebaceous glands, which leads to increased sebum production. The result of this is an increased likelihood of hormonal acne breakouts. One study found that volunteers with severe acne who took a daily oral dose of a pantothenic acid-based dietary supplement demonstrated improved skin health versus those who took a placebo tablet. This study showed a greater than 67% reduction in total facial lesions after 12 weeks of supplementation—more info on pantothenic acid for acne people.
- Vitamin A can help with the immune system, vision, and the normal development of the skin cells. Vitamin A can be naturally found in beef liver, certain types of fish (herring, salmon, tuna), green vegetables (spinach and broccoli), orange and yellow vegetables (sweet potato, carrots, squash), or as a dietary supplement.
- Zinc is an essential mineral that contributes to skin hair and nails healthy and helps with immune system activity, protein, DNA synthesis, and wound healing. A few clinical studies have shown that oral zinc may help treat acne—especially adult acne and cystic acne. We can find significant amounts of zinc in seafood (oysters, crab, and lobster-red meat), poultry, beans, nuts, and whole grains or as a food supplement.
What are the best natural vegetable extracts for women with hormonal acne?
Cruciferous vegetables, also called Brassica vegetables, seems to be the best for women with hormonal acne or adults' acne. The magical group of vegetables includes Kale, Brussels south alfalfa spinach, broccoli, and few great natural resources of vitamins and minerals. One ingredient of the Cruciferous vegetables, DIM, seems to be especially useful to balance hormones in adults with acne. Click here for more info on DIM supplements for women with hormonal acne.
What should you drink when you have acne?
Drinking water (plenty!) is a must to stay healthy and energized. A small amount of coffee (without milk) is OK, depending on how you tolerate caffeine. Teas, especially green tea, are antioxidants and can benefit both your general health and acne.
The best acne for people with acne is ... actually pretty intuitive! It should be balanced between grass-fed protein, organic vegetables, and some low-glycemic complex carbs. That said, we should not forget that a good diet is just one factor in your way to clear skin. To clear acne completely, it is critical to implement an effective, medical-grade acne treatment personalized to the individual's acne severity and skin type.
The best supplements for adult acne
The best supplements for teens with acne
Implications for the role of diet in acne
These foods can help clear breakouts.
Foods that make your skin oily
The significance of diet in treated and untreated acne vulgaris
To find the right acne treatments for your unique skin, take the free skin assessment by clicking here.